Tag Archives: Atheism

Compartmentalizing Delusion

CompartmentsReligious people hold a lot of beliefs that nonbelievers conclude are delusional (see here). Many of these believers also hold important positions of responsibility in the government, in the media, and business. Some of them even sit on our Congressional Science Committee. Their decisions deeply impact public policy and the very existence of us and of our planet.

Those most fervent in their beliefs proudly tout the fact that their deeply held religious beliefs guide and influence all of their decisions as a lawmaker. But when someone points out that those deeply held religious beliefs are in direct conflict and contradiction to basic reason and accepted public policy, they then typically claim compartmentalization.

Essentially the contradictory claim they make is that while they affirm that they are deeply influenced by nonsensical ideas, those nonsensical ideas do not influence their thinking in rational matters. They insist that they can wail over rapture on Sunday and make prudent, long-term budget decisions on Monday. They can enumerate why evolution is a hoax cooked up by scientists at Wednesday evening Bible study, then properly assess the advise of climate change scientists in their Thursday morning advisory board meeting. They can affirm that the Bible is the only source of truth on Saturday morning, then go home and work on educational text book selections all afternoon. They assert that one is not affected by the other in the least – except when they want to tout the fact that it is.

Their amazingly selective isolation of thinking, they claim, is all thanks to the magic of compartmentalization. It lets them espouse crazy beliefs and claim to be perfectly sane and rational too. This claim is made so often and with such matter-of-fact certainty, that most people just tend to accept it as true.

But let’s examine this claim of compartmentalization more closely.

All of us compartmentalize somewhat. In fact, such compartmentalization is critical to our functioning. We mentally separate work and home, parent and spouse, private and public. When we think of scientific models, we hold two seemingly different views at the same time (see here). Compartmentalization is an essential rational and emotional adaptation. Maybe that’s partly why we accept their claim of exceptional compartmentalization so easily.

But all normal and highly functional behaviors can become abnormal and dysfunctional at some point. At the extreme, we see people with multiple personalities that are split so completely that they are not even aware of each other. And although some extremely rare individuals can apparently completely isolate their thinking, most of us cannot. For most of us, any irrational, dysfunctional thinking does spill over and taints our rational thinking.

We humans can do hand-stands too. When I was in high school, there were a couple of guys on my gymnastic team who could literally walk up and down stairs between classes, in a crowd at full speed, on their hands with perfect form. But because those rare individuals could do it doesn’t mean we can all claim it. Just because Jimmy Carter seemed to isolate his religious belief from his rational thinking in a healthy way, doesn’t mean that many of us can do that. Jimmy Carter was more like the gymnast who could walk up and down stairs on his hands. Most others who believe they can isolate belief from rationality will invariably plummet down the stairs, taking innumerable others crashing down with them.

As I point out in my book, Belief in Science and the Science of Belief (see here), religious belief is the pot smoking of rational thought. Every pot smoker or alcoholic is convinced that they can handle it. That their rational thinking is not affected. They think what they are expounding while high is really profound, but it’s really just nonsensical gibberish. Religious people can’t see how ridiculous they sound while they’re high on the Bible and only listening to others who are just as stoned.

We don’t easily accept this same claim of compartmentalization in any area other than religion. We don’t fully accept that ones stressful job as a homicide cop has no affect on their home life. We would not accept the assertion by a racist that while he may attend Klan meetings on Friday nights, this has no impact on his professional behavior as a hiring manager. Most of us would be at least skeptical in accepting any opinion expressed by a Wiccan who claimed to have supernatural powers, despite any claim of compartmentalization.

Even religious people don’t accept any compartmentalization except the one they claim. If I ran for public office as an atheist, I don’t have any illusions that my claim that I can compartmentalize my atheism would be sufficient to convince any religious people to trust that my judgement has not been tainted by my atheism.

Religious thinkers claim compartmentalization to avoid legitimate skepticism regarding their compromised rationality. Sadly, we accept this claim for the most part. We should stop giving them this free pass. Not only can such fervent “deeply held” delusions not be sufficiently compartmentalized, but believers don’t really want or intend to compartmentalize away their beliefs in any case.

Religious people want and need to propagate their beliefs and weave them inextricably into public policy. Our polite acceptance of their dubious claim of compartmentalization only helps enable them to do that.

 

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Agnosticism Just Won’t Die

I know I run the risk of beating a dead zombie with my blog, but I feel compelled to write yet one more article about the rotting abomination that just won’t die – agnosticism.

The reason I simply must respond yet again is because news articles and opinion pieces touting the intellectual purity of agnosticism just keep getting published everywhere you look. And these aren’t written only by religious proponents, but by scientific and academic intellectuals as well (here’s one). Like most of these agnostics, this author contends that agnosticism is misunderstood. Being agnostic is not merely being undecided or ambivalent or apathetic, but rather it’s a highly principled position that upholds sound scientific skepticism and empiricism.

The author gleefully notes, as do all agnostics as their go-to-proof-by-authority, that even Richard Dawkins admitted he is agnostic! This well-intentioned but misguided and tactically disastrous statement of philosophical agnosticism by Richard Dawkins, given who he is, has caused incredible harm to reason and rationality. Don’t follow his lead on this one.

Skepticism is indeed a hallmark of the scientific method. But skepticism is not synonymous with gullibility and science does not require you to abdicate logic and reason and common sense. Good scientists can and do reject an infinite number of ridiculous propositions out-of-hand every day. Healthy scientific skepticism does not require you to doubt everything. It merely requires that you withhold drawing conclusions regarding plausible assertions until sufficient evidence is obtained.

This is where the agnostics think they have an iron-clad argument. Since supposedly science cannot prove a negative (e.g. god does not exist), then despite the lack of positive evidence, any good scientist must be agnostic regarding anything and everything! Gotcha!!

First, scientific rigor does not require that scientists disprove every possible ridiculous statement. Imagine anything that is clearly untrue. Take for example, my claim that my banana is actually a sentient life-form named Ned from planet Zorcon that just happens to exactly resemble a banana right down to the molecular level. Ned is in a coma right now and cannot respond or do anything un-banana-like but he deserves the rights of personhood. Healthy scientific skepticism simply does not require scientists to admit that my assertion might be true. It certainly does not require that they perform studies to try to prove or disprove this claim. Scientists have no burden whatsoever of disproving my absurd claim about Ned the comatose alien banana. It is entirely my burden to prove it and until I do good scientists can and should simply reject it out of hand.

And keep in mind, these agnostics do not claim god is a plausible belief, they rather claim that regardless of how implausible it may be we must allow that it may be true nevertheless.

Next these agnostics will – cleverly they think – point out that science cannot prove a negative. This fallacy is typically summed up by quoting Martin Rees who famously pointed out that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. What this correctly points out is that just because we see no evidence of something doesn’t necessarily mean it does not exist. In fact, this quotation would be far more accurate and less misused if stated as “absence of evidence is not always evidence of absence. When this phrase is quoted by agnostics they fail to recognize that a sufficiently conclusive lack of evidence absolutely can prove a negative.

Let’s contrive an example for fun.

I do not need to even look in my bedroom to assert with 100% certainty that there is no dragon in it. There is no such thing as dragons and no reason to even consider that possibility, so therefore I can dismiss this proposition out of hand. Further, as a good scientist it is my obligation to dismiss such claims with prejudice.

elephant-in-roomBut what if the claim is not a dragon but an elephant. Well, elephants do exist and while I cannot imagine how one would get into my house, I can easily prove or disprove this claim just by glancing around my bedroom. Having done so, I can legitimately conclude with 100% certainty that there is no elephant in my bedroom. If there were an elephant hiding under the bed or behind the curtains, I would reasonably expect to have seen at least some evidence of it. Therefore, I do not need to remain agnostic with regard to the sincere heart-felt beliefs of the elephant-in-every-bedroom cult to prove I am a good scientist. I have sufficient proof to conclude with certainty that my bedroom is elephant-free and that all claims of an elephant in my bedroom are delusional.

God is like that elephant. He is SO huge that if He existed we would certainly have seen evidence. There is none.

But let’s argue that god is more elusive and secretive – like bedbugs. Let’s say that the bedbug cult claims that I have bedbugs in my bedroom. Even though I don’t see any bedbugs just by glancing around, it is still possible they may exist and as a good scientist I take the advice of Martin Rees to heart and withhold conclusion pending further evidence, positive or negative. So, I bring in trained dogs and bedbug residue detectors. I carefully examine all the places where they would be found if they were there. If, after that, I find no evidence of bedbugs I can conclude beyond any reasonable doubt that my bedroom is bedbug free. I do not have to remain agnostic about whether dragons or elephants or even bedbugs are in my room to prove I am a good scientist. Such agnosticism would only prove that a fool exists my bedroom.

Similarly no legitimate evidence of god, however secretive he may be, has ever been found, despite the fact that believers make extravagant claims about his tremendous influence over our world. 

In fact, unhealthy agnostic skepticism is the exact opposite of good science. Science, unlike mysticism, relies upon the certainty that our cosmos is knowable; that it follows rules. Not just anything is possible. If it were, the cosmos would not be knowable at all and science would be meaningless. In science, things are true, observable and logical, or they simply do not exist and are untrue, period. To say that good scientists cannot know anything for certain is to turn science into mysticism.

To be frank, agnostics are not the champions of science and reason they imagine themselves to be. Ultimately their position renders science and reason invalid. If they insist that we cannot disprove things for which there is no proof, then they are necessarily saying we cannot positively assert anything at all. For anything you could assert as true, you could simply make up any story to cause all that evidence to be in doubt. Agnostics are required by their dogma to accept that.

You can have fun with agnostics. Make up some unprovable reason to claim something silly. Agnostics will be forced to admit you might be correct because they cannot disprove your un-disprovable fantasy. This exposes how bereft of any meaning their position really is. Truth and falsity, science and mysticism, evidence and belief all collapse upon themselves into a meaningless jumble of pseudo-intellectual nonsense if you accept the agnostic view of reality.

So agnostics have a huge problem. They think they are purists in being “open-minded” enough to admit that god might exist by making a philosophical claim that we cannot really disprove (or thereby even prove) anything whatsoever. But they don’t actually apply their intellectual purity to every possible ridiculous proposition. They only selectively apply it to this particular ridiculous god assertion. Though they might stubbornly claim to apply this thinking to everything universally, clearly they do not do so in practice. In the end either these are just smart people applying convoluted logic to rationalize a particular ridiculous proposition that they want to believe or they are misguided atheists who mistakenly believe that agnosticism demonstrates their sophisticated and superior intellectual standing.

What harm does agnosticism cause? It undermines logic and reason and moves us toward a pseudo-scientific kind of mystical thinking in which anything is possible. Moreover, if we accept the agnostic argument, if we give it any credibility whatsoever, then we accept that god might exist. And if we accept that god might exist, then we must accept Pascal’s Wager and concede that it makes some sense to assume he does. And if we assume he does, then it only makes sense that believers proselytize and fight to shape government and public policy in accordance with their delusional religious thinking.

Agnosticism is the brain-eating zombie of philosophical nonsense that just won’t die. Accepting agnostic arguments is to follow them down their rabbit hole into Wonderland where the ridiculous is accepted as the norm and crazy ideas are rationalized with insanely inescapable logic.

 

The Anatomy of Thought

Mind-uploading is the fictional process by which a person’s consciousness is transferred into some inanimate object. In fantasy stories this is typically accomplished using magic. By casting some arcane spell, the person’s consciousness is transferred into a physical talisman – or it might just float around in the ether in disembodied spirit form.

Mind_switcherIn science fiction, this kind of magic is routinely accomplished by means of technology. Upgraded hair-dryers transfer the person’s consciousness into a computer or some external storage unit. There it is retained until  it can be transferred back to the original host or into some new person or device. This science fiction mainstay goes back at least to the 1951 novel “Izzard and the Membrane” by Walter M. Miller Jr.

In some of these stories, the disembodied consciousness retains awareness within the computer or within whatever golem it has been placed. Sometimes the consciousness is downloaded into a new host body. It might inhabit a recently dead body but other times it might take over a living host or even swap bodies with another consciousness. Fictional stories involving technology being used for a variety mind-downloading and body-swapping scenarios or possessions go back at least to the book to “Vice Versa” written by Thomas Anstey Guthrie in 1982.

The 2009 movie “Avatar” depicts of all sorts of sophisticated technological mind-uploading, remote consciousness-control, and even the mystical downloading of consciousness into a new body. In this and innumerable other science fiction, fantasy, and horror plots, minds are portrayed as things that can be removed and swapped out given sufficiently advanced magic or technology – like a heart or liver. This is depicted so often in fact that it seems like some routine medical procedure that must be right around the technological corner at a Body-Swap™ franchise near you.

One reason this idea seems so believable to us because it is so similar to installing new software into your computer. But the computer analogy fails here. Brains are not analogous to computers in this regard and consciousness is not analogous to a computer program. Our hardware and software are not independent. Our hardware is our software. Our thoughts are literally our anatomy.

It might be a better analogy to rather think of our brains as non-programmable analog computers in which the thinking is performed by specific electronic circuits designed to perform that logic. The logic is not programmed into the circuits, the logic is the circuitry itself. Our thoughts are not programmed into our brains, our thoughts are produced by our neural circuitry. Obviously  our thinking does change over time, but this is a physical re-linking and re-weighting of our neural connections, not the inhabitation of some separable, independent consciousness within our brains.

I allow that we might conceivably copy our consciousness into a computer, but it would only be a mapped translation programmed to emulate our thought patterns. And as far-fetched as that is, downloading our consciousness into another brain is infinitely more far-fetched. That would require rewiring the target brain, that is, changing its physical microstructure. Maybe there is some scientific plausibility to that, like a magnet aligning all the particles of iron along magnetic ley lines. But it’s incredibly unlikely. We’d essentially have to scan all the connections in the subject’s brain and then physically realign all the neurons in the target brain in exactly the same way and tune the strength of all the connections identically.

And even if we did that, there are lots of nuanced effects that would still introduce differences. Our body chemistry and external drugs influence how these neurons fire. In fact, it’s likely that even if our brain were physically transplanted into a new host body, subtle differences in the environment of the new body would affect us in unanticipatable ways, influencing the very thoughts and emotions that make us – us.

Yet our fantasy imagining of consciousness as an independent abstraction not only persists but largely dominates our thinking. Even the most modern intellectuals tend to be locked into at least an implicit assumption of a mind-body dualism. René Descartes was a key figure in bringing scientific and philosophical credibility to what is fundamentally a religious fantasy concocted to make religion seem plausible (see here).

For religious thinkers, a mind-body duality MUST exist in order for there to be an after-life. In order for religious fantasies to seem reasonable, the soul (essentially just our disembodied mind) must be independent and independently viable outside the body. For many, the mind or soul is bestowed by god and is the uniquely holy and human thing that we have that lesser species do not. For them, the mind has to be separable to support their fantasy of God-given uniqueness from the rest of the animal kingdom. A unified mind-body greatly undermines their case for creationism, human divinity, and an afterlife.

So this illusory assumption of dualism is propagated by familiar computer analogies, by ubiquitous fantasy and science fiction, by horror ghost stories, and by our dominant religious and new age thinking. But this dualistic pseudoscience leads to many false and misleading ideas about how our brains work. That in turn results leads us to a great deal of mistaken thinking about a broad and diverse range of questions and precludes our ability to even imagine more realistic answers to those questions.

One harm this idea does is to provide a circular, self-fulfilling basis for belief in the supernatural. If we accept the assumption that our mind is independent, that then demands some kind of mystical explanation. But this dualistic thinking hinders our understanding of many non-religious questions as well. How do newborns fresh out of the womb or the egg know what to do? How can thoughts be inherited? How can a child be born gay? The answer to all these questions become quite simple if you shed your mistaken assumption of dualism. We all start with an inherited brain structure which is the same as to say that we are all born with thoughts and emotions and personalities.

When you truly internalize that the mind and body are one and the same, that our thoughts arise purely from our brain micro-structure and our unique body chemistry, new and far simpler solutions and perspectives open up for a wide range of otherwise perplexing and vexing social, scientific, and metaphysical questions.

Someone smarter than me could write a fascinating book about all the ways that this fantasy of an independent consciousness leads us to false conclusions and inhibits our ability to consider real answers to important questions. But if you simply become aware of this false assumption of duality, you will find that you’ll naturally start to look at a wide range of questions in far more satisfying and logically self-consistent ways.

 

 

The Last Gasp of God

One book that I frequently recommend is “The Merchants of Doubt” (see here). It was even made into a documentary film. The authors document the decades-long campaign of misinformation orchestrated largely by a small group of “reputable” scientists with the goal of discrediting any legitimate arguments against DDT and other hazardous pollutants, ozone-destroying CFC propellants and refrigerants, acid rain caused by coal burning, tobacco and its links to lung cancer, and most recently man-made climate change.

These scientists employed well-refined tactics to delay any meaningful reform in these areas. Essentially, their strategy was to create doubt about these dangers. As long as they could manufacture even the thinnest illusion of doubt, they could delay any efforts to restrict those industries. They succeeded for a long time – and still succeed with climate change – but only with the complicity of mainstream media organizations that publish their made-up arguments over and over again because they create bankable controversy and bolster the impression that their media coverage is fair-mined and impartial.

The New York Times has consistently been, unwittingly or not, one of the most influential misinformation machines for these merchants of doubt. And they are still helping them out. The other day they published an opinion called “God Is a Question, Not an Answer” (see here). In it, author William Irwin, a Professor of Philosophy at King’s College, puts forth ridiculous arguments in an attempt to discredit atheism. Or, more specifically, to create doubts about the fundamental intellectual validity of atheism.

Irwin claims that any reasonable, intellectually honest atheist must admit some possibility that god might actually exist. This is the exact same manipulation that pro-tobacco advocates put forth for years – surely any scientist with integrity must admit that he has some doubt that tobacco causes lung cancer. Similarly, Irwin attempts to shame us at least into a position of agnosticism that legitimizes religious belief. He says:

“Any honest atheist must admit that he has his doubts, that occasionally he thinks he might be wrong, that there could be a God after all …”

“People who claim certainty about God worry me, both those who believe and those who don’t believe. They do not really listen to the other side of conversations, and they are too ready to impose their views on others. It is impossible to be certain about God.”

These are false and totally ridiculous assertions. The only people that actually worry me are those that express any doubt whatsoever. As to the first claim, it is simply as silly as if one said:

“Any honest atheist must admit that he has his doubts, that occasionally he thinks he might be wrong, that there could be an Easter Bunny after all …”

This is a totally fair substitution since God has not one iota more factual credibility than the Easter Bunny. And again – just as with DDT, and tobacco, and CFC’s – the New York Times is complicit in helping to propagate and maintain this illusion of legitimate doubt by publishing this article.

I don’t condemn the New York Times for printing a viewpoint that doesn’t agree with me; I don’t condemn them for publishing a wide range of ideas; and it isn’t my goal to muzzle free-speech; but it is fair to criticize the New York Times for publishing harmful factual nonsense – just as they did in all those other areas so well documented in the Merchants of Doubt. And facts aside, this particular article is not even theoretically sound as an intellectual debate or legitimately valid discussion.

Make no mistake, belief in god is harmful factual nonsense. And this campaign to create intellectual doubt has been working. Even the vast majority of my atheist friends have been at least partially influenced by this argument and shamed by articles like this one, published by respected organizations like the New York Times, into a false position of agnostic intellectual “honesty.” But in my opinion, the only intellectually honest and courageous position is that there simply can be, is no god.

I would have come away dispirited and disappointed by this article, but happily the New York Times readers are far more intelligent and less gullible than New York Times contributors and reviewers. When I scanned the more than 750 comments, I found that essentially all of them see right through this nonsense for exactly what it is. The vast majority were clear-eyed and astute in calling bullshit on this transparent manipulation.

DyingCandleThat makes me VERY encouraged. When merchants of doubt like William Irwin have to resort to manufacturing doubt, it is an admission that they know they cannot win on the merits of their position. It is their last gasp to cling to religion and delay the widespread outright rejection of god. That the dying candle of religion should finally burn out is inevitable because facts inevitably win in the end. Tobacco does cause cancer whether you admit it or not. Man-made climate change threatens our planet whether you choose to believe it or not. And there is no god to come and save us no matter how much you would like there to be. It’s all up to us and only us.

The public is obviously figuring that out. Too bad it is taking so long for the New York Times, once again, to stand for facts rather than propagating manufactured illusions of doubt on factual matters. I thank all the New York Times readers who posted their comments to this article and thereby reminding me that just because some professor of philosophy publishes some nonsense, even if it is published in the New York Times, many, many of us are simply not buying the doubt they’re selling any longer.

Let’s hope that desperate articles like this one are nothing more than the last gasps of a dying god.

 

Dismissed with Prejudice

ElvisDo you have one of those wacky friends? The ones with a deep, sincere, heartfelt conviction that Elvis still lives. That he is actually in seclusion preparing for his epic comeback? Busy rehearsing for the ultimate Elvis concert that will transform the world?

Your friend undoubtedly has an articulate rebuttal for every possible reason you can throw at him for dismissing the possibility that Elvis might still be alive. His death was staged. The witnesses are all in on it. The corpse in Graceland is a DNA-identical clone of him. He is being kept young by a chemical concoction that the pharmaceutical industry has suppressed.

Your friend probably turns the tables on your skepticism quite easily. How can you be so arrogant to claim to know everything? Are you that close-minded? Surely you can’t prove and therefore can’t know for certain that he isn’t still alive. If you are as scientifically open-minded as you claim you must admit some possibility that he might still be alive. Surely you can admit that reasonable people can disagree on this unless you believe he is dead purely as a matter of faith. The only intellectually honest position on this question must be agnosticism.

Your friend points to several well-regarded scientists who admit that it is possible Elvis is alive. He recommends a plethora of scholarly books that debunk all those fallacious “scientific” arguments claiming that Elvis is dead.

Or perhaps your friend has a different but similarly wacky belief that he clings to and argues for with great passion.

All that was my way of setting the stage for the real point of this article – that I do not need to read any of those books purporting to prove that Elvis might be alive. Elvis is dead. Period. Any book that starts with the premise that he may still be alive is necessarily idiotic. There is no need for me to actually read them in order to legitimately dismiss them out of hand. Good scientists dismiss an infinite number of implausible claims all the time every day.

So there is no need for me to entertain arguments about how Elvis might still be alive. And there is no reason for me to read a book that starts with the premise that Elvis is alive or the Holocaust did not happen or the Moon landing was faked or alien overlords built the pyramids. I can dismiss them all out of hand without even reading the book jacket. The only reason to read them may be if your interest is studying delusional thinking or the infection of magical thinking amongst otherwise healthy individuals.

And I have read a great many of these books that purport to present a logical or scientific argument for at least allowing the possibility that god might exist. When I wrote my book Belief in Science and the Science of Belief (see here) I took the time to slog through a 4-foot stack of books that undoubtedly made Amazon the lucrative enterprise it is today. It was largely a waste of time and money on my part. Believers have had two millennia to come up with arguments so there are simply no new ones to be found.

As a concrete example, I bought several books on Neurotheology (see here). I did the world a service by throwing these out rather than reselling them. Written by Andrew B. Newberg and a host of his followers, these books typically spend 250 pages citing brain imaging and cognitive studies related to belief and god. Their real goal is to establish their science creds so that you will believe them when, in the last 50 pages, they leap to outlandish claims that go something like “since we have clearly evolved to believe in god, the only conclusion must be that god himself designed us to believe in him.”

The only conclusion is that this is an idiotic conclusion. But then again what can you hope to get from any author that starts from the silly premise that god exists and works backwards?

Religious books purporting to be scientifically legitimate examinations of the “evidence” for god pop up on Amazon every day like so many weeds. I can’t read them all but I can still dismiss them all out of hand. There simply is no god, can be no god, and therefore every book claiming to argue this point is necessarily as idiotic as books arguing that Elvis is alive and well and living in a secret wing of Graceland.

And thus, dear reader, we finally reach the heart of my dilemma: Do I read these silly books and respond to them or do I simply ignore them?

Ignoring them is not easy. If no one pushes back on them, they seem to win the argument. And there are so many of them saying the same silly things that many readers mistake quantity as an indication of quality. On the other hand, the time for engaging these silly debates is over. At this stage of the atheist movement, we must move past engaging in and thereby legitimizing these ridiculous debates. We should give no more consideration to religious ideas than we do to racist ideas or homophobic ideas or sexist ideas or the idea that Elvis is amongst us.

Still it’s hard to resist getting sucked in. Recently a new book appeared on Amazon called “Can Science Explain Religion” (see here) written by a priest who is also a Professor of Religion. It apparently “debunks” the very theory of the evolution of belief that I present in my own book. Do I buy this and read it so I can credibly criticize it and defend my position, and thereby risk encouraging this nonsense? Or is it best not to even respond and hope that the rest of the country follows my sensible example?

After struggling with this dilemma for many years, I have come to believe that refusing to engage is the best strategy moving forward. Engaging in further debate with them only feeds the beast. Like booing Donald Trump at a rally.

It’s not an easy course of action nor is it without risk or criticism. But in science, we must first ask whether our basic assumptions are valid before we enter into discussions of the resulting questions. We must not let ourselves get caught up in grand debates over how Santa manages to deliver all those presents in one night when the very premise of Santa is pure fantasy.

And that is how we should respond to these books and these arguments – by dismissing them out of hand and with great prejudice and by refusing to entertain dependent arguments arising out of purely implausible assumptions.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Indeterminism

FreeWill

Free-will and determinism are concepts that religious and non-religious thinkers alike love to debate about. Unfortunately both exist largely in the realm of fantasy and any discussion of these concepts only serves to strengthen religion and mysticism. We atheists should be very careful about when and how we discuss these concepts.

First let’s consider free-will. Regardless of any non-religious discussions one might like to engage in about free-will, this term has become inextricably synonymous with religion. It was popularized largely by theologians to counter the problem of evil in the world. How can a good god allow evil? Well he gave us free-will of course! Since the universe cares not, God alone can define good and evil and give us the magical ability to choose between them. Free-will unavoidably suggests something outside of science, something divine, bestowed by god to humans only. Any discussion about free-will is to enter into a logical discussion about an illogical construction.

In direct opposition to free-will is determinism. Although it comes in many varieties, determinism is essentially the idea that we actually have no free-will at all. Everything in the universe is determined by the laws of chemistry and physics. You could predict every feeling and thought you are experiencing right now if you calculated forward correctly from the Big Bang. You may think you have a choice about what you do next, but that’s an illusion. Your every movement, thought, and choice was predetermined when the cosmic cue ball broke the table and the universe was set into motion.

Such discussions about determinism, while stimulating, only ultimately encourage religious thinking. If the universe is deterministic then there can be no good or evil, right or wrong. Most people refuse to accept such a universe or the idea that we have no choice. After all, we all feel something we perceive as choices between right and wrong. So any discussion of determinism quickly sends most people flocking in droves to the religious side. Their reasoning and their emotional reaction to determinism may be arguably flawed, but that is the result nevertheless. Secular philosophers may think they can logic our way out of this recoil into the arms of religion, but their logic is insufficient for most people.

Part of the problem here is that free-will and determinism are both extreme conceptual constructs, like positive and negative infinity. On one extreme, there is no right or wrong or choice. On the other extreme, right and wrong are defined by god and choice is bestowed by him and everyone is wholly responsible for everything they do. If good and evil and defined clearly by god, there can be no room for “situationalism.”

But reality is the continuum between these theoretical extremes. We live in the grey regions of choice and responsibility. We certainly perceive that we have choices and that we make choices. So choice is real to us at least. And regardless of whether those choices are ultimately predetermined in some sense, we as individuals and collectively as a society have no alternative but to judge and to respond to the choices we make.

To resolve the apparent contradiction between living in a “clockwork” universe that can only operate according to the mechanics of its particular gears and coils, and our perception of choice, consider randomness. One might argue that in a predetermined universe there is no such thing as a truly random number. You could in theory predict every random number in advance if you knew the state of the universe at any point in time and understood all the rules of physics sufficiently. However, according to every practical test we could perform and every objective purpose to which we could apply them, random numbers are demonstrably random to us. It would be silly to base our technology on the idea that there are actually no random numbers. And it is equally silly to base our beliefs or our society on the notion that choice does not exist.

But we should also recognize that in the grey area we live in, choice and responsibility are mitigated by a large number of deterministic factors. We recognize that if you look far enough back everyone is a victim of deterministic influences. At the same time, we must acknowledge that everything is to some extent a choice as well. We have to draw a line somewhere to decide when and how to hold people accountable for their actions. The extent to which people actually have a choice and the extent to which we hold them accountable for their choices is a judgment mitigated by many factors. These factors include age, state of mind, delusion or drug influence, intentions, ignorance, upbringing, circumstance, coercion, whether this behavior is treatable, how dangerous it is, and whether it is likely to repeat.

Clearly it’s not practical to consider everyone an innocent victim of the big bang and hold no one accountable for their actions. We have to hold people accountable for their choices. But it’s just as impractical to fail to consider the many physiological and social factors that determine behavior and effectively give people little or no choice in their choices. As individuals we have to draw our own lines and as a society we have to draw a collective line with treatment and help on one side and prevention and punishment on the other. Understanding, however, can span the entire spectrum. It is not inconsistent to understand the determinants of choice and still punish those who make those choices.

For example, even a suicide bomber may ultimately have no real choice given the horrific situation that we have created in their country. If we had not bombed their home into the stone age and taken away every other course of action, they likely would never have strapped a bomb to their chest. We may actually be more responsible then them, and yet still we must prevent and punish their behavior. We can understand the causal factors that forced that behavior and to the extent that we can and change those conditions we should. Understanding that every decision is neither completely a choice nor completely excusable, is to live in the very messy real world lying somewhere between the theoretical extremes of free-will and determinism.

 

 

 

 

 

Deeply-Held Beliefs

Our society overall, and even we atheists, have largely bought a bill of goods sold to us by the religious community. It is the flimflam that deeply-held beliefs are more sincere, more legitimate, less crazy, and more irreproachable than any old “ordinary” beliefs. Often these are also marketed under the labels of sincere or cherished or even deeply-cherished™ beliefs.

We have all been manipulated into granting an undeserved level of respect and deference to beliefs when they are immunized by these adjectives. This deference is not only undeserved, but it excuses some of the most damaging practices by those espousing these deeply-held beliefs. We tend to push back on beliefs until someone proclaims that it is deeply-held, sincere, and cherished. Then suddenly it becomes taboo, insensitive, and disrespectful to criticize it. In fact, we often accept that such deeply-held beliefs should be exempted from or even protected by the law.

Well unless of course it’s a deeply-held, sincere, and cherished belief of Muslims. In that case it’s clearly crazy.

Take for instance the vehemence by which “deeply-held” beliefs are defended by Katie Geary from the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty (see here). According to Geary:

“Groups that insist on insulting others’ deeply cherished beliefs are the truly immature ones here. Little do they realize how juvenile they appear to the “fairy tale” believers they so ardently wish to cut down.”

That’s quite a dressing down, and this is only a small sample of her attack against any criticism of deeply-held beliefs. However, as the Humanists of Minnesota point out, it is often impossible to see any difference whatsoever between deeply-held beliefs and plain old bigotry (see here).

KimDavisIt was her deeply-held beliefs that inspired Kim Davis to refuse to grant marriage certificates to gay couples in defiance of the law. Just last week cherished beliefs led right-wing Conservative leader Kevin Swanson to publically call for the mass execution of gay people. Deeply-held beliefs resulted in the owners of Hobby Lobby claiming religious exemptions so that they are free to discriminate.

Likewise, deeply-held beliefs that abortion is murder led anti-abortion extremist Scott Roeder to shoot Dr. George Tiller in the head. It was sincere beliefs that prompted John Salvi to bomb a Planned Parenthood clinic killing two and wounding others.

These are just a few extreme examples but such incidents are hardly rare. We could go on and on citing examples of harmful actions motivated and justified by claiming they are in accordance with deeply-held beliefs.

These are extreme examples, but that does not make them irrelevant to all of those “harmless” deeply-held beliefs that we ought to respect. Quite the opposite, these only point out the danger of ever letting ourselves get taken down this path. Any time we give any special deference to more benign beliefs, we necessarily make it that much more difficult to criticize and curtail any belief no matter how destructive. In a world that is fundamentally based in fantasy, logic offers little assistance in drawing such lines. Our deference to innocent little deeply-held beliefs leads directly to carve-outs that condone and institutionalize bigotry, prejudice, and violations of civil rights.

We don’t accept the notion that racism or terrorism or homophobia are any more legitimate if these beliefs are claimed to be deeply-held, sincere, or cherished. Similarly we should not be bamboozled into accepting this same justification for the acceptance of or favoritism toward religious beliefs.